By Zoey Di Mauro
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — On the 75th anniversary of the creation of a federal minimum wage, Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., addressed a Senate hearing June 25 about the importance of fair wages and the dignity of work.
He said, “The new bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, recently remarked that work ‘fills us with dignity (and) makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts; it gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.'”
On June 25, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which enacted a minimum wage, initiated worker protections and all but ended child labor. Today the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 an hour and $2.13 for tipped labor. The minimum wage was last raised in 2009 and tipped wages, in 1991.
Currently, half of American jobs pay less than $27,000 a year and there are more than 46 million people living in poverty, 16 million of them children, said Bishop Blaire, who is chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The current minimum wage yields an annual salary of about $15,080,” he said. “This amount is below the poverty level for any size family that includes even one child, according to the Census Bureau. This is unacceptable.”
In the audience at the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing were people whose livelihoods would benefit from a raise in the minimum wage.
Seth Harris, acting secretary of the Department of Labor, articulated some of their stories: “During my trip to Cleveland,” he began, “I met Kizzie, a state-tested nursing assistant. She’s a mother of three. Her daughter has been accepted to the University of Cincinnati, but Kizzie worries about whether she can afford it.”
“In Boston I met Pattie, a woman who earns just above the minimum wage working at a local movie theater. Like many Americans, she struggles to make ends meet, but Pattie constantly feels like she is falling even further behind,” he continued. “When I spoke with her, I made the mistake of classifying her as someone who lives paycheck to paycheck. She corrected me, pointing out that living paycheck to paycheck would actually mark a significant improvement in her life.”
Bishop Blaire described what he has seen in his own community.
“Our Diocese of Stockton, in the San Joaquin Valley of central California, includes some of the deepest and most pervasive poverty in our country,” he said. “Work should be a ladder out of poverty for families; it should not trap them in poverty.”
Committee chairman U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 to try to adjust the minimum wage for current inflation. If passed, it would raise the minimum wage to $8.20 an hour, then to $9.15 after one year and to $10.10 after two. In addition, it would increase the minimum wage for tipped employees to $3 an hour.
Harris said that increasing the tipped wages is vital; although employers would have to make up the difference if their employee’s tips to not add up to $7.25 an hour, which is difficult to track and enforce, making it easier for employers to take advantage of workers.
In addition to Bishop Blaire, others who testified at the hearing included economics professor Michael Reich of the University of California at Berkeley. He spoke of studies, including his own, that showed that moderate minimum wage increases do not harm the economy.
On the other side of the issue was James Sherk, an economics analyst from the Heritage Foundation, as well as the ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Both said they believed the overall economy would be better served without an increase in the minimum wage.
“We do have a fundamental difference, some people believe there shouldn’t be a minimum wage, some people believe there should,” said Harkin. “You either believe that work has dignity or it doesn’t, if there’s dignity in work, then there has to be enough compensation, like the bishop said, that you are dignified in that work.”